Bliss Barber Studio sits empty, one of the many businesses idled as El Paso tries to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of Christine Estrada)

UPDATE: An additional 6,116 new unemployment claims were filed the week ending March 27, bringing the two-week total to almost 10,000. In the two weeks prior, just over 600 initial unemployment claims were filed.

The number of El Pasoans filing for unemployment jumped tenfold last week as businesses began to close or scale back operations amid restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

More than 3,600 El Pasoans filed new unemployment claims the week of March 15, when orders closing bars and limiting restaurant operations took effect in El Paso. That was up from fewer than 300 the prior week, according to preliminary numbers from Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

“Pretty much everyone I know worked in the service industry, either a bar or a kitchen, maybe at a restaurant that happened to close, servers, people who work in movie theaters. It’s just insane. There’s a lot of people that are out of work,” said Andrea Prisco, who was laid off March 20 from her job as a server at Anson 11, an upscale Downtown restaurant.

The numbers of unemployment applications are expected to continue to grow as the city’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order goes into effect. Businesses deemed non-essential have to close and people uncertain about their own economic future are reducing spending.

READ MORE: What you can do if you’ve lost your job because of coronavirus

“I am anticipating a huge hit today after yesterday’s order. A lot of people are likely at home filing right now,” Leila Melendez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, said Wednesday. Information on unemployment benefits is available at the Workforce Solutions Borderplex website.

Help for El Paso restaurant workers

Maggie Asfahani filed a group unemployment claim for her 21 workers when she temporarily closed her 3-year-old Central El Paso restaurant, Salt+Honey Bakery Cafe. The restaurant focuses on breakfast, which made it unrealistic to offer take-out service as allowed in the city order, she said.

“I have an employee who’s pregnant. A single mom. A young mother with a young family. And so I just wanted to try to do right by them. And, you know, I just, I don’t know. I was crying,” Asfahani said.

Salt+Honey Bakery Cafe, 801 N. Piedras, opened in May 2017 and has closed temporarily because of the coronavirus pandemic, putting 21 people out of work. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Asfahani)

She worked with the Paso del Norte Foundation to establish the El Paso Food and Beverage Workers Fund, which provides micro-grants to displaced service workers. The fund continues to accept donations and applications for assistance.

“I came up with the idea to start a fund where we would give these micro grants, $50, to folks who would apply, just another resource for them to get some groceries or fill some gaps when they might not have anywhere else to turn to,” Asfahani said.

Expanding unemployment benefits

Many of those who lost jobs historically would not have been eligible for unemployment benefits because they were self-employed or independent contractors. Many such people would be eligible for unemployment compensation in a massive relief bill being considered by Congress.

Christine Estrada closed her Bliss Barber Studio, 6100 Dyer, on Wednesday to comply with the latest city order. She rented chairs to four other barbers. 

“I had to tell them (they had to close). They got the messages, they understood, they were understanding,” Estrada said.

She said she hasn’t decided whether to seek unemployment payments if she qualifies under the new legislation.

‘If I really have to go that route I’ll do it,” Estrada said. 

She said she had built a steady clientele, particularly with Fort Bliss soldiers.

“We were good until this lock down. Now we can’t open our shop and that is our only income coming in,” Estrada said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen honestly.”

Waiting for help from federal stimulus

Laura Bennett, owner of Gentlemen’s Republic Barber Salon at 1712 N. Mesa, has been expanding her business in recent months. She began offering coffee service in January and bar service on March 13, four days before the city order to close bars.

Bennett said her staff consists of about 12 people who are a combination of independent contractors and employees who will not be able to work because of the closure. She said she’ll tap into any relief provided in the federal stimulus package.

“I would be stupid not to,” she said.

Prisco, the laid-off server at Anson 11, applied for unemployment on Sunday. She had tried earlier but the system was overwhelmed with applicants.

She received two weeks of severance pay and she’s looking for other jobs.

“That was my only source of income. I don’t know what else I can do,” she said.

Reporter Elida S. Perez contributed to this story.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.